Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Angels in America at Studio 58

Twenty-three years after it premiered on Broadway, Vancouver audiences get to revisit the first part of Tony Kushner's searing and historically epic AIDS drama Angels in America not once, but twice this theatrical season. The Arts Club's staging of "Millennium Approaches," which together with its bookend, "Perestroika," makes up Kushner's swirling and queerly Shavian "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," will be up at the Stanley next March. But right now, Studio 58 launches its 2016/2017 season with its own production of the same play. Under the assured direction of Rachel Peake, it's a terrific take on what is now a contemporary classic (if that doesn't seem like an oxymoron).

While Kushner's richly complex and linguistically luxurious dissection of American politics ensures that the work transcends its Reagan-era setting (indeed, the resonances of Roy Cohn's take-no-prisoners conservative bluster with Donald Trump's current election campaign are eerie), Peake nevertheless wisely eschews the potential trap of making this an artifactual period piece (though the 80s pop soundtrack pre-show and in between scene changes was greatly appreciated). She also enlists her incredibly talented cast and crew to help create the play's many moments of design magic in ways that are utterly quotidian, but no less breathtaking because of that. The Angel does not crash through the ceiling of Prior Walter's Manhattan apartment in this version of the play; instead, she enters on foot from upstage, the twinned concave walls of Drew Facey's elegantly simple set parting to let her and her impressive wingspan through as rock star lighting illuminates her way. A small army of silent but physically adept supernumeraries is crucial to achieving the Spielbergian effect of this climactic scene, as they are to ensuring earlier low-fi, high-impact bits of stage spectacle, as well as, more generally, the smooth transitions of set and properties between scenes. In this regard, Peake takes to heart Kushner's injunction in his notes to the play that it is alright--and maybe even imperative--that the wires show, as seeing the unseen hands that give shape to and support a worldview (be it an imagined theatrical one or an all too real ideological one) is a crucial element of the politics of this play.

But what deserves the most praise in this production are the performances. Dramaturgically, Kushner's play calls for many of the parts to be double cast, a conceit designed not just to save money, but that also thematically structures elements of the text, with different characters played by the same actor often echoing each other in terms of their dialogue or actions. However, in a student production like this it makes sense to draw upon Studio 58's deep talent pool and have each character, no matter how briefly on stage, played by a different actor. Happily, almost all of the supporting ensemble make the most of their short time in the spotlight, with Chloe Richardson's intensely physical Mr. Lies, Stephanie Wong's acerbic and practical Sister Ella Chapter, Krista Skwarok's weary and wise Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz, and Camille Legg's Republican Washington fixer Martin Heller making especially memorable impressions (and on the latter two fronts I was glad to see that Peake preserved the play's penchant for cross-gender casting). Josh Chambers and Raylene Harewood play Belize and Hannah Pitt, respectively, characters who enter late in the plot of "Millennium Approaches," but who become important figures in "Perestroika." Here both actors deliver quietly confident performances, with Chambers channeling just the right amount of camp and simmering resentment in Belize's dealings with "white crackers" like Louis, and with the physically tiny Harewood nevertheless giving us a sense of how the no-nonsense Hannah is able to command others to do her bidding, while also revealing a bit of the compassion that lurks underneath Hannah's hard exterior.

Conor Stinson O'Gorman's take on the historical figure of Roy M. Cohn, the closeted gay henchman of Joseph McCarthy and de facto executioner of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, is an idiosyncratic one. He dials down the loud outward bluster and the explosive kinetic energy that I've seen other actors bring to the part (including F. Murray Abraham on Broadway and Al Pacino in the HBO miniseries); combined with a way of speaking that suggested to me more midwestern drawl than New York Jewish verbosity, and an almost laconic way of dealing with Roy's beloved multi-line phone in the scene in which the character is introduced, I was worried that things would go south very quickly with this crucial part. But cumulatively, over the course of the play, O'Gorman is able to give us a sense of the anger and deep self-hatred roiling underneath this Roy's more contained and deliberative surface appearance, which makes the character's late-in-the-play confrontation with his wayward surrogate son, Joe, all the more terrifying when it is unleashed in all its fullness of volume, physicality, and latent eroticism.

At its heart, however, this production is anchored by the stellar performances of the actors who play the two sets of couples whose relationships are imploding. Mason Temple and Elizabeth Barrett, as the unhappy Mormans Joe and Harper Pitt, and Brandon Bagg and Julien Galipeau as Louis Ironson and Prior Walter, gay lovers dealing with Prior's recent AIDS diagnosis, manage the delicate dance of conveying with utter conviction and heartbreaking honesty just how much they love their partners, but also how completely and hopelessly alone they are. The montaged scene in which Joe and Louis separately tell Harper and Prior that they are leaving is tricky not just because of all the different emotions that must be kept in balance, but also because of the rapid shifts in intercut dialogue. Here it is accomplished with affecting precision on both fronts, and that is thanks as much to savvy choices Peake has made in her casting as it is to her own exacting direction.

Temple's Joe, struggling with his repressed homosexual desires and with the weight of Roy's poisoned mentorship, is literally gutted by the years of denying and stamping out what he wants, coughing up his self-lacerated insides in the form of a bleeding ulcer. Joe, who feels so unloved, in fact becomes the least lovable character by the end of the second part of Angels in America; but it is to Temple's immense credit that here we genuinely understand Joe's struggle and even support Roy's and Louis's separate urgings of him to transgress. That such a transgression comes at the expense of the happiness of his long-suffering wife, Harper, is part of this play's heartbreak; Barrett plays this wronged character, who is also something of a truth-saying Cassandra in terms of what (both with and without the aid of pills) she sees going on around her in the universe, with such openness and vulnerability that the flip side of her pain, namely the wonder she experiences with the aid of Mr. Lies during her hallucinations, comes as such a marvellous and surprising balm. It is hard to convey genuine astonishment on stage, but Barrett accomplishes this task with great naturalness and spontaneity, such that the delight she experiences upon arriving in Antarctica is immediately transferred as something to share and feel alongside her.

Any actor who takes on the part of Louis has his work cut out for him. Not only does the character have the most lines to speak, many of them further freighted with the weight of Kushner's dialectical philosophy, but Louis also does the most despicable thing of all the characters in the play: he walks out on his lover at his time of greatest need. Bagg is an utter natural as Louis, luxuriating in the complex richness of Kushner's dialogue while also conveying how utterly wracked by guilt is this man who, as adept as he is at spouting the theoretical cant of revolutionary struggle, is not so good with the practical day-to-day struggles of dealing with sickness and death. Bagg also successfully taps into his character's gay Jewish charm; despite the actor's avoir du pois and bad hairpiece, it is easy to see why both Prior and Joe would fall in love with Louis. Finally, there is Galipeau as Prior, fabulous chosen messenger of the heavens who would give up that role for a little bit more time as a depassé diva on earth. Galipeau is tall and muscular, with a deep and sonorous voice that commands attention, making it easy to understand why he might be an angelic spokesperson. But he is also not afraid to tap into his feminine side, moving with lightness and grace while in drag and also, in the face of his illness and Louis's abandonment, showing us just how small and afraid he feels. The aforementioned split scene, which culminates in a shattered Prior indicting Louis for his crimes, is all the more powerful for how spent and empty and even more alone Galipeau makes Prior appear after Louis has gone.

In my personal repertoire of canonical works of Western drama, Angels in America holds a special place. I saw the play soon after it opened on Broadway, and subsequently in a very accomplished staging in Seattle. I also own DVDs of the HBO miniseries and have taught the play many times (and will be again this spring, in conjunction with the Arts Club production). Coincidentally one of the students I introduced the play to more than a decade ago during a course devoted to Kushner at SFU came up to me at intermission. He reminded me of the class and said that this was actually the first time he was seeing the play live. We both agreed that this production was an absolutely stellar way to experience this work in performance.


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